Bishop Gary Woolsey: On a wing and a prayer

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Gary Woolsey, retired bishop of Athabasca, riding his motorcycle with his grandson Jordan. Photo: The Sower
Gary Woolsey, retired bishop of Athabasca, riding his motorcycle with his grandson Jordan. Photo: The Sower

Gary Woolsey, retired bishop of the diocese of Athabasca, who took his ministry to remote communities by plane, and later by motorcycle, died on Oct. 18, 2013 at the age of 71 in Calgary.

Born in Brantford, Ont., Woolsey was ordained in 1967 after earning a B.A. from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in theology from Huron College in London, Ont.

He became a pilot priest in the diocese of Keewatin, serving 25 remote aboriginal villages in northern Ontario and Manitoba. He was also the rector of St. Peter’s at Big Trout Lake, Ont. In 1972, he and his wife, Marie, and their children moved to St. Mark’s, Norway House, Man. Two of the four years he served there were as a non-stipendiary priest who taught school, after earning a teacher’s certificate from the University of Manitoba.

In 1976, he accepted a position as the rector of St. Paul’s parish in Churchill, Man. According to an article in the Calgary diocesan paper The Sower, written when Woolsey retired in 2002, “Life in Churchill proved to be a wonderful experience, living on the shore of the Hudson Bay, enjoying the seals, belugas, geese, [and] polar bears-even the one who visited their garage.”

In 1980, the family moved to Kenora, Ont. There, Woolsey was executive archdeacon and program officer for the diocese of Keewatin. He helped organize training schools for native priests, along with training lay ministers, both native and non-native.

He was elected bishop of the diocese of Athabasca in 1983 and moved to Peace River, Alta. Woolsey served on the national church executive (now Council of General Synod) and participated in the 1988 and 1998 Lambeth Conferences, meeting with bishops from around the Anglican Communion. He also attended Partners in Mission consultations in Kenya and the Sudan, according to The Sower.

But in 1991, he told the newspaper, he felt a call to return to parish ministry. He announced his retirement as bishop to serve as rector at St. Peter’s in Calgary until his retirement in 2002.

In 2007, he was named national director of the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer (AFP).

Woolsey had a passion for riding motorcycles, which he shared with Marie, who began riding with him and later got her own bike. Together, they criss-crossed Canada and the U.S. At St. Martin’s parish in Calgary, where Woolsey was a parishioner in recent years, he hosted an annual “Blessing of the Wheels” service. In the summer 2009 issue of the AFP newsletter he said, “It originally started as a Bikers Service, but then the children wanted to bring their bicycles, scooters, and tricycles. We have people with wheelchairs, sports cars, trucks, vans, and any ‘wheeled vehicle’ they want to bring. ” That year, his biking-themed sermon focused on sharing one’s gifts in a team and looking past the “potholes”of life.

According to information from his family, Woolsey spent eight months in Calgary’s Southwood Hospice, following brain surgery. While there, he wrote On a Wing and a Prayer, a book of motorcycle meditations, and Meditations from a Hospice Bed. Both books draw on his experience of 35 years of ministry.

Bishop Woolsey is survived by his wife, Marie, and children: Todd (Terri) of Fairview, Tenn., Kathleen of Norway House, Man., Drew (Heather) of Calgary, Alta., and Tina of Kamloops, B.C.; as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s in Calgary (903-75th Ave. S.W.) at 1:30 p.m. Former primate Archbishop Michael Peers will be the homilist; Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, will lead prayers; and Bishop Greg Kerr-Wilson of the diocese of Calgary will preside.

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